Somehow, likely unintentionally, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first two seasons are perfectly timed to represent the first two Phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Phase One is laser-focused on building a universe, building to and culminating in The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season is the same, building bridges to The Avengers and filling in the gaps of the larger shared universe.
Phase Two pulls back from the interconnectedness as the individual heroes question their identity. Iron Man Three finds Tony Stark wondering about Iron Man’s place in the universe; Thor: The Dark World has Thor caught between his ties to Asgard and his feelings for Earth; Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees S.H.I.E.L.D. compromised to the core and needing removal; Guardians of the Galaxy forces a group of rogues, villains and ne’er-do-wells to save the universe; and Avengers: Age of Ultron finds the Avengers struggling with whether they’re heroes or monsters.
Like the films, these questions of identity have run through S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season. S.H.I.E.L.D. first finds itself in a war with Hydra, mostly made up of ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, before becoming embroiled in a struggle against another team calling itself S.H.I.E.L.D. Skye has been torn between her adopted family with S.H.I.E.L.D. and her biological family in the Inhumans. Bobbi and Jemma infiltrated Hydra, with Bobbi making decisions that still haunt her today. Mac and Bobbi infiltrate Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D., believing it to be a shady successor to Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D.. Hunter and May lose pieces of their soul in the line of duty, but ignore healing by throwing themselves into the job. Ward is lost, castaway from both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, and without any real sense of the future.
All of these identity issues come to a head in S.O.S., the best episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. to date.
As odd as it sounds, some of the most touching moments of tonight’s episode come from Coulson and Cal. Cal is convinced that he’s a villain, that he has to be a monster to protect his daughter from even more savage monsters in the world. Yet Coulson refuses to give up on him: he convinces Cal that he’s not a monster, but just a pawn in Jiaying’s greater schemes. Coulson could’ve put a bullet in Cal’s head, but he goes out of his way to rehabilitate the mad scientist. It’s a very humanist moment from Coulson, and is probably what convinces Cal that his part-alien daughter is in good hands with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Kyle MacLachlan is at his hammiest tonight, and is a delight, but Clark Gregg also delivers surprisingly strong work. As an actor, it seems like Gregg is elevated by the performers around him, and the stronger his partner, the stronger Gregg’s performance becomes. It’s sad to see MacLachlan go, as he’s easily the best character that S.H.I.E.L.D. has produced yet. Yet his departure is an earned sadness; when Skye visits Cal, lobotomized into a new identity, she sees the man her father likely would’ve been. There’s a twinge of longing in those moments, seeing a glimpse of the Johnson family had Hydra not ripped them apart.
It may have been possible for Cal and Skye to rebuild some kind of compromised, but still loving family, were it not for their domineering matriarch. Jiaying has presented herself as this saintly leader of the Inhumans, ready to be a mother and mentor to Skye, dangling the possibility of a reunited family to Cal. But tonight, Jiaying’s true face is unveiled, as her murderous manipulations are brought into the light. While I don’t think Jiaying is as frightening as Daniel Whitehall, she’s a much more compelling villain. Her turn into a filicidal supervillain was a little sudden, but her motivations always clear and understandable. Dichen Lachman imbues Jiaying with warmth and calm, but also a fierce and icy viciousness. When Skye confronts her on the carrier deck, Jiaying no longer sees a daughter in Skye, but an obstacle to her goal of Inhuman supremacy.
But Skye is her parents’ daughter; though she’s been orphaned all over again, she’s continuing their legacy. Like her mother, Skye has begun building a team of superheroes, likely training them in how to develop their powers. And like her Doctors Without Borders father, Skye hopes to use this team to help the world. It’s exhilarating to see Skye escape the tragedy of her past and grow into an optimistic, compelling leader with a vision of the future.
Unfortunately, not every character is able to escape tragic histories. Kara, aka Agent 33, has the most heartbreaking arc of the season. Brainwashed by Hydra and losing her own face for a large part of the season, Kara’s identity is fractured, able to be remolded by Ward into an enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D. After betraying his S.H.I.E.L.D. family and murdering his biological family, Ward himself seems lost and alone, and was all too eager to invest all of himself into Kara’s new identity.
Several major characters die this episode, but Kara’s is the biggest knife-to-the-gut. After morphing her into a blind acolyte, Ward is tricked into killing her. Reeling at Kara’s death, Ward tries to reconnect with Hydra, but finding the organization in shambles. He decides to build a team of his own, but this feels like a reactionary move. Ward’s entire identity was molded and shaped by John Garrett, and he still hasn’t figured out how to function alone. Ward is the perfect spy, every interaction a calculated manipulation, but without Garrett, Ward has nothing to work toward. At this point, Ward is deceiving no one moreso than himself.
Bobbi is confronted by her past tonight; Kara seeks vengeance for Bobbi betraying her to Hydra. Bobbi is tough in the face of torture, sneering to Kara that she’d do it again. But the episode’s end reveals that Bobbi was putting on a facade. Bobbi presents Kara’s sacrifice as a numbers game, giving up one S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to protect twenty. But by episode’s end, Bobbi has reached her breaking point. After infiltrating both Hydra and Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and betraying so many friends and allies, she tearfully tells Hunter that she wants out.
May looks at Bobbi and sees herself. In a touchingly succinct conversation, May calls her ex-husband and tells him things have gone bad. After the worst mission of her career, May distanced herself from her emotions, seeking comfort in the arms of war instead of the arms of her husband. But now May is reaching for a lifeline. After seeing how broken Bobbi is, May is realizing that it shouldn’t be this way. Ming Na-Wen is already announced to return for S.H.I.E.L.D. season three, but I’d be perfectly happy if tonight was May’s last episode, quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. to live a life on her own terms.
Let’s ignore my identity theme for a moment to talk about how fucking badass Mac is. From stalking through the carrier with a goddamn ax, to beaning Lincoln in the head with a hammer, Mac gets no shortage of awesome moments in this episode. He also gets the two best lines, introducing himself to Gordon as “the guy who kills Gordon,” and, “I thought my mom was bad when she started watching Fox News!” Upon episode’s end, it seems like he’s heading a prototype of S.W.O.R.D., the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency focused on alien artifacts.
Mac has been served well by the second half of season two, and Henry Simmons is one of the unsung heroes of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Mac’s become the moral center of the team. Unlike Coulson, who makes decisions based on impact, Mac weighs every decision morally. And for him, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t always in the right: he’s the only agent on the show to scream at Coulson, and he was pretty damn justified in doing so. Mac has become one of the most complex characters on the show, and Simmons has given him real emotional depth. As S.H.I.E.L.D. introduces cosmic superheroes and globetrotting mercenaries into its mix, it’s good that Mac keeps the team grounded and human.
I think that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third season will embrace the monsters. Coulson and Skye talk about keeping their team of warriors ~~secret~~ anonymous, but the Terrigen crystals have leaked into the global food supply. Will the Terrigenesis trigger for latent Inhumans? Or more horrifyingly, will the tainted fish cause regular humans to turn brittle and into dust? Will instances like these lead world leaders to call for some kind of Superhuman Registration Act?
But that’s the future. For now, we have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2, which is the best offering from Marvel Television. S.O.S. is S.H.I.E.L.D. at its finest, weaving complex character themes, compelling setups, and expansive Marvel lore into a compelling package. S.H.I.E.L.D. has outgrown the shadow of Marvel’s films, firmly standing in the light.
5 Mack Cold-Clocks Out of Five. Comments section, can you make me a gif of Mac’s out-of-nowhere hallway clobber? It’s simultaneously one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most badass and funniest moments.
For once, S.H.I.E.L.D. has an episode T.I.T.L.E. that actually justifies its use of caps and periods.
R.I.P. Raina, Kara, Gordon, possibly Jiaying, and probably Simmons. Tonight, pour one out on Cal’s face for your fallen homies.
Jiaying is probably dead and staying that way; her death fulfills both Skye’s and Cal’s arcs. But I’m hesitant to buy her demise, considering Whitehall literally disemboweled her. It seems like she should be able to walk off a neck-snapping.
I’m pretty sure Simmons is a goner, and I can’t say I’ll miss her too much. She was one of my favorite characters in season one, but S.H.I.E.L.D. had no clue what to do with her this season, reinventing her character every few episodes. Elizabeth Henstridge will return in season three, likely as some sort-of Kree super weapon. This is surprisingly common in Joss Whedon joints: killing a character, but having the same actor play a god-like being. See also: Angel, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Okay, one last thing on Simmons: my very last note watching the episode is “WTFWTFWTF”. The monster gobble is the show’s best jump-scare by far. It’s an infuriating place to end the season. Why is season 3 so far away?
In the comics, Calvin Zabo transforms into Mister Hyde, a grey-skinned hulking monster. On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Calvin Zabo transforms into Nick Nolte. Skye takes after her father when it comes to superpowers: when Cal finally has super strength, he flips and rattles the flimsiest props in the room.
I’m particularly fond of the scene in part 2 where Coulson and Fitz catch up with Mac. Coulson and Mac chat about their approach to fighting Gordon while Fitz zips around the room, placing devices to limit his teleportation. Director Billy Gierhart kept the long conversation as a single roving shot, making the scene very kinetic and fun to watch.
Fitz’s pipe through Gordon’s chest is a great bit of misdirection, especially since Simmons set him up perfectly for him to die. Between Fitz and Hawkeye, Marvel is having a lot of fun this month bait-and-switching supporting hero deaths.
I’ve been insisting all season that the aircraft carrier is a Helicarrier, but that’s clearly not the case. Marvel clearly saved their surprise Helicarrier appearance for Age of Ultron.
I forgot Mac’s third badass line. When Simmons asks to examine the morphing Kree rock: “We’re not opening that damn box in a thousand years.”
I’ll close with some of Cal’s final words to Skye, which beautifully capture my thoughts about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2: “You know, you’re better than I imagined. I imagined you perfect. You’re way more interesting than that.”